“Be More Chill,” a world premiere musical that is at the Two River Theater in Red Bank through June 28, starts with a familiar theme: Can the high school geek get the girl?
And it adds another one that is equally familiar, yet more common in science fiction than in comedies about teen misfits: If you stumble upon a new kind of pill that’s supposed to solve all your problems overnight … it would probably be wise to just say no.
It’s a credit to all those involved — composer/lyricist Joe Iconis, book writer Joe Tracz, director Stephen Brackett and an unflaggingly energetic cast of 10 — that even though you can easily figure out where this is all going, “Be More Chill” still feels fresh. With its easily relatable characters, clever twists and ebullient songs, it engages you from beginning to end.
When we first meet central character Jeremy Heere (Will Connolly), he’s having trouble downloading internet porn. But don’t worry, this is not, in general, a play that’s particularly interested in pushing boundaries.
Jeremy, we soon learn, has plenty of the usual high school problems. He’s not popular at school, spending most of his time with his only friend, Michael (George Salazar). He has a crush on a girl, Christine (Stephanie Hsu), who barely knows he exists. His dad (Paul Whitty) spends the day in his bathrobe; he’s been wallowing like this since Jeremy’s mom left.
Jeremy doesn’t have big dreams. He just wants a tiny degree of happiness. “I don’t want to be a hero/Just wanna stay in the line/I’ll never be a Rob De Niro/For me, Joe Pesci is fine,” he sings.
Things change, though, when classmate Rich (Gerald Canonico) — formerly nerdy, too, but now popular — offers him a pill that will change everything. Jeremy takes it, washing it down with a Mountain Dew (it needs that to work, for some reason), and meets his “Squip” (Eric William Morris), a kind of supercool fairy godfather whom only Jeremy can see or hear, and who tells Jeremy how to handle himself in every situation. Popularity ensues, followed — inevitably — by chaos, and then a resolution.
It really helps that the secondary characters are fleshed out a bit. Christine isn’t just the object of Jeremy’s affection, but has dreams and neuroses of her own. Michael isn’t just a sidekick, and becomes an even stronger presence in the play once Jeremy leaves him behind. The Dad wakes up from his torpor when he needs to.
A scene at a Halloween party enables costume designer Bobby Frederick Tilley II to have some fun, and Christine’s interest in acting enables Iconis and Tracz to get in some theatrically themed jokes. The high school drama club, for instance, tries to modernize Shakespeare by adding zombies to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
“Don’t you care about Shakespeare?” the earnest Christine asks.
“The man is dead; let it go,” is the response.
Christine feels most comfortable acting. “You follow a script, so you know what comes next,” she sings. It’s no accident that “Squip” sounds like “script”: The pill gives Jeremy a kind of script for life.
And, of course, that’s what everyone – especially high school students, perhaps — is looking for: A guide to take them through life, solving problems and minimizing risk. Sadly, it’s not that easy for Jeremy, no matter what his magic pill promises.
This serious theme is there, in “Be More Chill,” though it’s touched on subtly. This is primarily an effervescent, feel-good musical, built around a sweet love story. One could easily see it settling in somewhere across the river for a long off-Broadway run. Or becoming a go-to choice for high school drama clubs everywhere.